It's Football Time in Tennessee: Vols at Kentucky Wildcats Preview (10/28/23)

Recently: Tennessee (#21/20, 5-2, 2-2) played a great half of football against Alabama. That's all.

Kentucky (NR, 5-2, 2-2) is coming off an open date after two straight conference losses (UGA and Mizzou). The Cats are just 5-8 under Mark Stoops when coming off a bye, but 5-2 at home (including 4 straight post-bye home wins). 

Previously on Vols vs. Wildcats: Kentucky was coming off an open date in 2022, but it didn’t make their trip to Knoxville any easier as the Vols dominated UK 44-6. Hendon Hooker and Will Levis combined for three touchdowns and three interceptions in the game. I'll let you figure out who got what. 

Tennessee has a commanding 83-26-9 lead in the series, but a UK win would give the Cats 2 of the last 4. 

Five Factor Preview

Tennessee Offense vs. Kentucky Defense

Kentucky's defense has been thoroughly mediocre this season, ranking middle-third of all teams in almost all of these categories. They have done a good job of limiting opponents' explosiveness, however, explosiveness hasn't proven to be a barometer for the Vols this year anyway (despite explosiveness, in general, being the most predictive of these advanced stats in college football). The Cats do boast the nation's 13th best run defense, giving up just 95.7 yards per game--but I feel like we hear something similar every week. Despite a below-average overall havoc rate, Big Blue has forced 11 turnovers this season, and they have forced a turnover in 11 consecutive regular-season games. Sophomore cornerback Maxwell Hairston has five interceptions this season, with two of those returned for touchdowns. 

Tennessee Defense vs. Kentucky Offense

I'm always happy to see an offense that allows a high percentage of havoc plays as it sets up nicely for how UT's defense has been playing this season. Many of UK's weaknesses play right into Tennessee's strengths--the Cats' high percentage of havoc plays allowed, for instance. QB Devin Leary threw just 16 INTs in four years at NC State, but has already thrown 7 picks as Kentucky's starter this season. Tennessee will want to get an early lead and make Leary try to beat them rather than letting UK lean on the SEC's leading rusher Ray Davis (111.6 yd/gm). Davis bulldozed Florida for 280 yards earlier this season and has four games with 100+ all-purpose yards.

Kentucky Top Offensive Concepts 

Outside zone is the Cats' favorite run play, but inside power is their most successful scheme, and when they run it as an option play, it garners the most yards. The interesting part is that Kentucky's version of option leans way more toward RPOs than QB runs. QB Devin Leary does have a couple of 20+ yard runs and a 13-yard TD scamper this season, despite his -48 net rushing on the year. But the RPO element is dangerous if the defense isn't being disciplined, and it helps keep the CBs from helping in run support. 

Here's an example. If the WR is left open, the QB can make the quick throw, otherwise he hands off. Notice how Leary doesn't look where the RB is going, his eyes snap right to the CB on the edge:

His eye do seem to move to the edge player before handing off, but with the defense crashing the RB pretty hard, it seems like Leary could've pulled the ball and ran. The QB run looks like a distant 3rd option in this scheme. Also note that Mizzou should've stopped that play for a loss. 

In the pass game, UK favors flood concepts, as have UT's last three opponents (and most of the SEC). Here's an interesting concept we haven't looked at yet: stick. Typically this will have a receiver in the flat and a receiver running a "stick" route: five yards and settle into a hole in zone coverage OR running away from the defender if it's man coverage. This example includes what might be an actual RPO or might just be play action window dressing: 

Prediction: In the off-season this game made me nervous as soon as I saw the schedule and knew the Vols would be facing a rested Kentucky team the week after traveling to Alabama. Now that it's here, I feel slightly more at ease. The Vols are a better team than Kentucky.  But there are still questions. How will Kamal Hadden's absence affect the defense? Which version of Joe Milton shows up this week? Are there lingering effects from last weeks' game? Can Tennessee win on the road? 

UT is just 4-6 under Josh Heupel in true road games. It's been the glaring weakness in what has otherwise been a renaissance for Tennessee football. However, 5 of those 6 road losses have been to Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Those are games Tennessee has to start winning for the program to take the next step forward, but they're also against teams that have objectively more talented rosters than Tennessee does currently. Kentucky is not on that level. There's also the fact that Tennessee has only lost back-to-back games once under Heupel, in '21 when the Vols lost at Alabama after losing to Ole Miss the previous week (and UT was more competitive in that Bama game than they probably had a right to be). "Snap and clear" isn't just coach speak for Heupel, it's an actual tenet of how he runs his program.

Winning on the road in the SEC is never easy, and I'm sure there will be something from this game we're all complaining about on Sunday morning, but Tennessee wins Saturday night, and likely cover the 3.5 they're currently favored by. 


Extraneous: One of my favorite what-ifs with Tennessee football is what if Tim Couch played for Tennessee instead of Kentucky. It was close to happening--by the end of Couch's high school senior season Peyton Manning was finishing his sophomore year at UT, and everyone was already looking for the next Peyton Manning. It was an era of limited recruiting coverage, the Rivals network was still a few years from debuting for example, but Couch's exploits as a high school QB were well known. Couch wanted to be Manning's understudy and get coached by David Cutcliffe, but Couch's father was a friend of Kentucky coach Bill Curry, and Curry promised to modernize his offense to fit Couch's skills. Instead, Couch got thrown into Curry's power-I triple option scheme and dang near torn in half as a freshman in a game against Florida. The Couch family, feeling betrayed, threatened a transfer to UT, but Kentucky AD C.M. Newton promised to find a coach that would utilize Couch more effectively, fired Curry, and hired Hal Mumme, ushering in the Air-Raid offense on the SEC stage. 

I believe this moved worked out the best for everybody. Of course, the QB who became Manning's actual understudy won a national championship. Had Couch transferred to Knoxville, I'm not convinced the Vols win it all in 1998. Tee Martin seems like a more natural fit for that team. Meanwhile Couch put up a ton of yards at UK and was a #1 overall draft pick (but never really panned out at the NFL level). The Air-Raid was a revolution in FBS football. And of course, Mumme's offensive coordinator was the Pirate himself, Mike Leach, who would go on to be an assistant at Oklahoma where he'd find and recruit a little-known QB from Snow College in Utah named Josh Heupel.


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